The Blue Devils of Nada
For someone who has established himself as one of the most formidable presences in contemporary African American letters, Albert Murray came late to a literary career. His first book, The Omni-Americans, an eloquent affirmation of African American culture in itself and in its importance for American culture at large, was published in 1970, when Murray, who had retired from the Air Force as a major in 1962, was fifty-four years old. This was followed in 1971 by South to a Very Old Place, a book that grew out of a series of articles commissioned for the “Going Home” series inaugurated by Willie Morris, then editor of Harper’s. This probably remains the work for which Murray is best known, but he has done impressive work as a literary critic in The Hero and the Blues (1972), and as a music critic in Stomping the Blues (1976), for which he received the 1977 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for music commentary from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). In 1985, Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as Told to Albert Murray was published to widespread acclaim. Murray’s first novel, Train Whistle Guitar appeared in 1974. It was the first of a series of novels focusing on the experiences of Scooter, Murray’s intermittently autobiographical protagonist. The second novel of the series, The Spyglass Tree, was published in 1991. A third novel, The Seven League Boots, was published simultaneously in 1996 with The Blue Devils of Nada. Although at least one reviewer has referred to The Seven League Boots as the last novel of a trilogy, published comments by the eighty-year-old author give readers reason to hope that they have not heard the last of Scooter.
All this constitutes an impressive body of work, notable not only for its quantity and consistently high level of merit, but also for the wide range of interests and competence it reflects. Murray is certainly no one-note writer. Yet his work, both fiction and nonfiction, is informed by certain recurrent themes which are present as well in The Blue Devils of Nada.
There is, first of all, the blues. Murray uses this term rather more broadly than is customary. The blues idiom, for Murray, is incarnated in all forms of jazz that remain linked to dance and good times. The function of this music is not, as a common misunderstanding would have it, lamentation; a blues composition is not a torch song. The function of the music called the blues, or of the blues idiom, is to keep the emotional state called the blues at bay, while honestly accepting the inevitability of its return. Even as the lyrics may wail a tale of woe, the music remains at some level life-affirming, heroic. Borrowing a term from the American literary and cultural critic Kenneth Burke, a major influence on his thought, Murray finds that the blues idiom provides humans repeatedly with equipment for living.
The blues idiom is in origin black, and Murray is an African American. In praising the music, he is then affirming his own cultural heritage. He is also clearing up a few things about that heritage. From The Omni-Americans on, Murray has made it part of his mission to challenge the view that the history of the African American may be adequately viewed as a history of victimization. As a man of letters, he has scornfully dismissed most protest fiction or, to use one of his preferred terms, social science fiction. While acknowledging that African Americans have sufficient and legitimate historical grounds for anger, he will not be moved by writers who are merely angry, without being innovative or insightful. By Murray’s standards, even such respected African American writers as James Baldwin and Richard Wright are ultimately unsatisfactory. What he calls for, and what he tries to practice in his own work, is not a denial of the harsh realities of experience, but an affirmative disposition toward those realities. In the obstacles individuals must overcome, both those that belong to the universal human condition and those that belong to the black experience in particular, Murray perceives what he calls a cooperative antagonism: We are forced to extend and to realize ourselves in the very struggles we cannot escape. “[An] affirmative disposition toward the harsh actualities of human existence . . . is characteristic of the fully orchestrated blues statement.”
A further point Murray wants to clear up is suggested by his willingness to discuss a black musical tradition in terms borrowed from a white critic such as Kenneth Burke. Murray insists that African American culture simply cannot be understood or appreciated or affirmed in isolation from American culture at large. There is, Murray observes, no “White” American culture. As he pointed out initially in The Omni-Americans, mainstream American culture is mulatto, the product at all points of racial interaction. (Multiculturalists of America, take note.) Hence Murray’s rejection of all forms of separatism; black people who separate themselves from mainstream American culture are, in Murray’s view, separating themselves from what is...
(The entire section is 2125 words.)